The images of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands in China have caused unease in Brussels at a time of rising concerns about fractures in Western unity.
The bilateral meeting between the leaders took place on Tuesday on the sidelines of an international forum hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping to celebrate the country's Belt and Road Initiative, a sprawling infrastructure project that involves more than 150 nations.
The in-person talks, which saw Orbán and Putin seated next to each other, focused on "the areas of oil and gas deliveries as well as nuclear energy," according to a short read-out released by the Hungarian government.
"PM Orbán emphasized the importance of peace, saying that an end to the flow of refugees, sanctions and the fighting was key for the entire continent, including Hungary," the statement said.
Unsurprisingly, the meeting and the handshake have gone down badly in Brussels, according to senior diplomats from different countries who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely express their thoughts and feelings.
The issue was discussed during a gathering of ambassadors on Wednesday, where some representatives asked their Hungarian counterpart for clarifications.
"It was not very welcomed, let's just say that," said a senior diplomat, referring to Putin as a source of "all kinds of problems" for the bloc. "There was a lot of regret. The signal it sends out was not positive."
"There is a signal that we cannot completely ignore, at the same time, we have always managed to achieve" consensus on Ukraine, said a second diplomat.
The optics are self-explanatory.
Vladimir Putin is a foreign president under EU sanctions who has been accused, among other things, of committing war crimes against the Ukrainian population, weaponising energy supplies to wreak economic havoc, waging incessant disinformation campaigns to destabilise liberal democratic systems and pursuing a neo-imperialistic agenda to bend the rules-based world order established at the end of World War II.
Putin has been placed under an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children.
Orbán, for his part, is the leader of an EU member state who is supposed to follow and honour the common strategies agreed upon by the European Council, of which he is part. Prior to meeting Putin, the Hungarian premier informed European Council President Charles Michel, who "strongly advised against it," according to Michel's spokesperson.
"It's crucial that everybody sticks to the policy that we have. If there's a leader that meets with Putin, that's clearly not in line with the policy," said another diplomat
While Orbán has been in the past denounced for blocking or watering down collective European action in a way that appeared to favour Russia's interests, the face-to-face encounter has raised concerns about possible security breaches.
Diplomats rely on confidential information to conduct negotiations and make decisions. The protection of communications is particularly important in highly sensitive topics, such as sanctions, defence, energy and technology.
"When we meet at the Council, we expect everybody to adhere to the rules and act in good faith. That applies to everybody," the diplomat added. "Images like this don't fortify, to say the least, that image of all of us in a comfortable setting sharing information with each other. I'm sure there are colleagues who wonder what's getting out of the room."
However, the first diplomat quoted above played down the risk, saying there was "no feeling of a Trojan horse" despite persistent disagreements on the Ukraine war.
Budapest has for months blocked a €500-million tranche of EU military assistance for Kyiv, an impasse that has become a sore point of friction in Brussels.
The veto began in early May after Ukraine's National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP) added OTP Bank, Hungary's largest bank, to its name-shaming list of "international sponsors of war." Budapest slammed the move as "unacceptable" and "outrageous," and demanded a retraction in exchange for the EU aid.
Following months of no progress, the NACP took earlier this month the decision to permanently remove the bank from the list. But the concession failed to change Hungary's mind and the veto remains in place as of today.
"There are different issues that are still being discussed," said a senior official working for the EU institutions, without going into details. "We expect, frankly speaking, sooner rather than later we will have an agreement. We're still working on that."
This piece has been updated with more reactions.